- By Warner BrownWarner Brown is a frequent contributor to FP's Tea Leaf Nation. He is based in Shanghai.
Why aren’t Syrian refugees going to China? Amid fractious debates in Europe and the United States about how to deal with the migrants streaming from the war-torn Middle Eastern country, this might sound like an esoteric question. Yet it is often on the minds of Chinese web users, and it tops the autocomplete results on Syria suggested by Baidu, China’s leading search engine.
Web users who have experienced Google’s autocomplete feature will be familiar with Baidu’s: When someone begins typing a term into the site’s search box, an algorithm sifts through its archives to display a list of previously popular ways to conclude the query. Those automatic suggestions often illuminate online discourse by revealing what concerns, both weighty and prosaic, lead people to consult the Internet for enlightenment. After making similar maps for Europe, Africa, and China, Foreign Policy translates and plots the most common Chinese-language Baidu query for each nation in the Middle East and Central Asia onto the map below:
Searches were originally conducted on Dec. 10, then refreshed on Jan. 7. Some countries did not generate sufficient results, and those are left blank. Current top results ask why Saudi Arabia “severed relations with Iran” and erroneously ask why Iran “severed relations with Saudi Arabia.” These stem from the Saudi execution of a well-known Shiite cleric, which prompted Iranian protesters to set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. For those two countries, the map above uses the earlier results, likely more indicative of more enduring Chinese views.
Baidu’s suggested results for queries on Syria reflect Chinese web user interest about how the nation devolved into civil war and the origins of its refugee crisis. Another high-ranking result asks: “Why did Syria attack France?” — an apparently puzzling reference to the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, which were sponsored not by the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but instead by the Islamic State. Predictably, the Islamic State appears frequently in autocomplete lists for other countries, revealing intense interest in the militant group among Chinese netizens. Common questions also include why Israel doesn’t mobilize its considerable resources against the Islamic State and why Iraq is unable to defeat the group in its own territory, a suggested search that has persisted even after Iraq’s recent progress on that front.
Syria and Iraq’s struggles against the Islamic State may be one reason that Chinese netizens ask why those countries are so “chaotic.” The “chaos” query appears often in autocomplete lists for countries in this part of the world, including Yemen and Afghanistan. The region’s instability may help explain Chinese netizens’ curiosity about why Saudi Arabia is “not chaotic” and — perhaps impressed by glittering Dubai — why the United Arab Emirates is relatively safe and free of war. The divide between chaos and stability is mirrored in queries about wealth and poverty: Netizens ask why the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are so rich while wondering why Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen are so poor. Online admiration for the UAE appears tempered somewhat by another leading search that asks why it is not a “developed country.”
Americans who have been to China and encountered grilling from locals about the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq might be surprised to know that autocomplete results about the occupation are outnumbered by queries on the country’s 20th-century history, including why Iraq went to war with Iran and why it invaded Kuwait. One sympathetic query on the nation’s recent travails simply asks: “Why does no country help Iraq?”
Across Iraq’s eastern border, many searches are riffs on why the Persian-speaking country is not considered part of the Arab world. Iran’s tense relations with the United States are represented as well, with Chinese netizens asking why the country was targeted with sanctions.
Suggested results for Israel are generally positive, asking why it is so strong and “awesome,” though some are curious as to why the country has difficulty defeating Hezbollah. One leading question asks why Israel has poor relations with other Middle Eastern countries, using a colorful Chinese saying that means “as incompatible as fire and water.” Chinese searches about Palestine often parallel those for Israel — a pair of popular searches asks why each territory claims Jerusalem as its capital. Netizens also ask how Israel was able to establish a nation and why Palestine cannot.
Moving to South and Central Asia, queries about Pakistan at first glance reflect a veritable love-in, with Chinese netizens asking why bilateral relations are strong and why the country and its people are so good to China. (The autocomplete results do not necessarily reflect enthusiasm for Pakistan among Chinese netizens themselves, an issue FP examined in 2015.) Netizens also wonder why Pakistan moved its capital to Islamabad and why the impoverished country has nuclear weapons. Across the border in Afghanistan, most queries focus on the country’s poverty and instability, as well as why it is able to “grow drugs” — likely a reference to its copious cultivation of opium poppies.
Chinese web users evince a strong interest in country participation in multinational clubs started or championed by China itself. Turkmenistan comes in for the sternest reprimand, with every suggested query asking why it has failed to join either the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — a Central Asian security association with China and Russia as members — or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a regional financial institution recently founded under Chinese leadership.
Inevitably, there are a number of queries about China’s beloved sport of soccer, such as why the landlocked Asian nation of Kazakhstan participates in the Union of European Football Associations and why Qatar is able to host the World Cup.
To be sure, these results do not constitute a collective declaration by all Chinese people about how they view various Middle Eastern nations. And facts aren’t at a premium; the enduring query about Saudi beds appears to be a creature of Chinese chat forums, not reality. But the results are a revealing glimpse into the minds of those many millions who use Baidu to help them make sense of the world.
Map by Warner Brown and C.K. Hickey. Copyright Foreign Policy. Do not re-publish without permission.